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Novel Bites: Christmas with Sunshine

Novel Bites is a series of short stories from the perspective of secondary characters in my novels. Sometimes the story is straight from the novel, sometimes it’s not. This is from Alice – her father Jack telling us about the moment he became her father. Please comment. Thanks.

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I had one Christmas with Sunshine.

We’d been together since August, though sex and drugs flowed pretty easy on the farm, so there was no way to be sure whose bun was in her oven. But now her belly button was inside out, I was the only one there massaging her back and cuddling up with her at night. I didn’t want anyone else.

We were still having sex. Anna told Sunshine it was perfectly natural and safe. In fact, she said pregnancy hormones increase a woman’s interest in sex – though that might have been wearing off. The last time we did it on Luke’s waterbed, Sunshine needed help getting out of it.

“Jack, I feel like a beached whale.” Then she rubbed her belly and smiled as if being a whale was the best thing in the world.

There were three or four toddlers and a couple waist-high kids living at the farm. I wasn’t completely sure which kids went with which adults, because they ran in a pack and we all watched out for them, more or less. There were two houses and who slept where changed frequently.

At our Thanksgiving feast, one of the older kids asked about Christmas, and there followed quite a debate about whether or not we should promote a commercial holiday. But we didn’t have a television, so the kids weren’t pestering anyone for the latest toys or anything. The kid asking just wanted to know what to expect – which I understood. Looking back at my life overall, you might be surprised to hear me say it, but living day to day with no plans for the future does have its down side.

Usually I kept quiet when the group was deciding on things like that, but that time I spoke up.

“I spent last Christmas in a miserable jungle, wondering if I’d make it through the day alive.” Mostly I kept being a vet to myself, so that was a surprise to most of them. “I don’t give a shit about it being commercial or religious. I just want that warm, peace-loving feeling everyone seems to get when they put up a tree and lights and start thinking about what they can do for other people.”

Longest piece of talk most of them had ever heard from me. Then I sat back and listened while they sorted it out. They decided they didn’t have to be Christians to believe Christ was a good guy who worked for peace, so it was okay to celebrate his birthday.

Once that decision was made, everyone got into it full bore.

We all hiked out into the woods and found a small tree to cut down. Luke suggested digging one up, but Ben, who had spent some time on the farm while his grandfather was still working it, said the tree would likely die when replanted and the one we were cutting would never grow because it was shaded by bigger trees. He said it was actually better for the forest to be thinned out now and then.

The ladies got to baking cookies and pies and popping corn that the bigger kids sewed together into garlands for the tree. I was supposed to call the ladies women, but that’s not how I was brought up and some things stick. Mostly I avoided calling them anything.

Once the smells and glitter got everyone into the spirit, we drew names from a hat, so each of us was responsible for one present and no one knew who had what name. Well, except for the ones helping the toddlers. Susie and Becky and couple other women stepped up to draw with the kids. They were probably the mothers, I guess.

I’m not sure how I got so lucky, but when I opened up my slip of paper, I had Sunshine. The rule was we were to make one gift for our person, unless there was something we knew they really needed or wanted that had to be bought, and they wouldn’t or couldn’t get it for themselves.

Well, Sunshine had all the hand-me-down baby stuff she was going to need, but there was one thing I could buy for her. She wanted a Polaroid camera so she could take pictures of her baby as she grew up. Sunshine didn’t talk much about where she came from – I never did know her real name – but she was sad that there’d never been any pictures of her growing up. She said it made her feel as if maybe she never really existed as a child.

Back while my father was still dragging me around, bragging about my medals and laughing about my shaggy hair, back before hordes of kids descended on the City and drove the original peace-lovers away, one of the guys passing through Sunshine’s life had taken her photo on a sunny day in Golden Gate Park. Sunshine had a copy of it, so she knew she existed there, in one of her gauzy outfits, with a ring of flowers in her hair. She was beautiful. She must have been a beautiful child, too.

So that’s what I got her. I didn’t share my finances with anyone, but I hadn’t spent all my money on drugs. When I first went to ‘Nam, I set it up so almost all my combat pay went into the bank for when I got home again. Figured it would give me a good start. But when I got back, there was nothing I really wanted to do with it, so most of it was still there – more than enough for a camera. I wanted to get Sunshine a lot of other things, but there was that one gift rule, so I settled for buying a dozen rolls of film to go with the Polaroid and wrapped it all in one box.

We exchanged gifts Christmas Eve, because otherwise the kids would have had us all up at the crack of dawn. It was after dinner and we opened them one at a time. I don’t remember what I got, or anyone else. I just remember the smile on Sunshine’s face. Annie wanted to take a photo of us together, but Sunshine said no, she was saving all the film for the baby.

There was a fire in the fireplace and all the lights were off but the Christmas tree and one for Ben to read by. He had a book of Christmas stories and he read them aloud, one by one, until the last kid got carried off to bed asleep and by midnight the adults were ready to call it a night. Then it was just me and Sunshine sitting on the floor, me spread-eagle with her leaning up against me so I could rub her belly as we watched the flames grow low. I leaned my head forward and breathed in the sweetness of her hair.

“Thank you, Jack,” she said softly, pressing her cheek gently against mine. “Not just for the camera, but for sticking with me. We’ll take a picture of all three of us once the baby’s here.”

She was assuming I was going to fill in as this baby’s father, and part of me wanted to, but I wasn’t sure it was mine or whether I would be any good as a father anyway. So I didn’t say anything, just eased back, but I kept rubbing her belly, watching the fire.

That’s when I felt it. The first time, I wasn’t sure. I sat there holding my breath, keeping my hand still in the same spot. Then that baby did a flip or something and there was no doubt at all.

From that moment on, Alice was my daughter.

 Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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Impressions: The Novice Traveler

Carolyn lumbered through the airport, a backpack slung over her left shoulder, her right arm stretched by the weight of her carry-on.

Big Brother’s voice reminded her, “Unattended bags will be confiscated.”

She stopped to catch her breath, put the suitcase on the floor close to her feet, and moved the backpack to her right shoulder. The pack had been the agent’s idea, so she could make sure everything made the plane change with her. It held more and had better pockets than a traditional purse, but she felt silly carrying it.

She picked up the suitcase and trudged onward. It had taken her forever to get to the departure gate and then they announced a change. Why did it have to be at the opposite end of the airport?

The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls filled her as she instinctively inhaled deeply. That would have to do. The bakery line was long, her new gate was still a good hike away, and the flight would be boarding soon.

She looked longingly at all the people effortlessly pulling bags on wheels. Why hadn’t the agent suggested that? If her father’s old bag hadn’t been the right size for carry-on she would have shopped for one. Maybe they all had wheels now.

Finally she got to the new right gate.

Carolyn lifted her eyes skyward. “Please don’t let them change it again.”

“You got that right,” said a Gothic person of indeterminate sex.

Carolyn started. She hadn’t meant to talk out loud.

Big Brother repeated his warnings. The Gothic person sniffed, drawing Carolyn’s attention to a nose ring. There was one through the left eyebrow, too. Why would someone do that? It had to hurt.

“You going to Maui, too?” the Goth person asked.

Carolyn paused, but saw no way to keep her destination a secret. She nodded and turned away. There were only two seats left open. The Goth person plopped down next to her.

“I love the islands… you been before?” it said.

Carolyn shook her head and pulled out the novel she’d brought for the plane. She opened it and put her head down, but that didn’t work.

“Kauai’s the best, but Maui’s nice if you stay away from the tourist traps.”

Carolyn stared at the first page.

“I’m Becca.” The girl shoved her ring-laden hand over Carolyn’s book.

Carolyn raised her head and made cautious contact with her fingertips.

The girl’s black lips couldn’t hide her dimples or the openness of her smile. It was just all the black leather and spiky hair and dramatic, ghoulish make-up that made her seem threatening. Well, that and the piercings. Carolyn returned the smile tentatively.

“You’ve been to Hawaii before?” she asked.

“Oh yeah. I love it there. Costa Rica’s nice, too, but Hawaii’s my favorite.”

“Really?” Carolyn thought of all the vacations she’d spent caring for her parents and working on their house – her house now. “You travel a lot?”

“Yup. I’ll stay until my money runs out, then go crash with my folks, get a job, and save up for the next trip. They cut me a deal on rent, to get me to come home sometimes, but eventually I’m going to work my way around the world.”

“How long did it take you to save up for this trip?”

“Three months. Maui’s really cheap if you know how to do it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“About fifty dollars a day. And the plane ticket.” The girl pulled a small electronic device from her pack and stuck pieces of black foam into her ears.

“Fifty dollars a day?” Carolyn sighed. Her hotel alone was three times that.

The girl didn’t hear. She was nodding to a dissonant sound audible despite the ear buds. So Carolyn didn’t talk about the Jeep the agent had insisted she add to the reservation, so she wouldn’t get stuck off-trail or on a beach. Carolyn was too timid to ever leave the road, and too timid to argue with the man. At least he hadn’t made reservations at restaurants for her, though he’d given her a list of places that served delicious fresh sea food – probably all expensive.

Carolyn touched Becca tentatively on the forearm. “Where do you eat?”

The girl emptied the ear closest to Carolyn, but still nodded to the music as she answered. “Mostly from grocery stores, then fix it in the kitchen or barbeque out back at the hostel. Groceries are expensive, but it’s cheaper than eating out.”

“They let you use the kitchen?”

“It’s a hostel. Like a hotel, but with community bathrooms and kitchen.”

“You share the bathroom with strangers?”

“And I’ll be sharing a room with three other people. You can get a private room, but it costs more. I’ve only done that when my gram came along.”

“Your grandmother?”

“Yep. She travels the same way. Hey, let me give you her email.”

As the girl handed Carolyn the slip of paper, a disembodied voice called for the first passengers to board. Carolyn stood up. The agent had said a first class ticket was essential for such a long flight. She knew Becca would be flying tourist.

“Are you sure your grandmother won’t mind you giving this to a stranger?”

“That’s the beauty of being a traveler,” Becca smiled. “There’s no such thing as a stranger.”

Impressions is a series of character studies – short sketches to wet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about Carolyn’s journey – or Becca’s – leave a comment.

Thanks.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signaturewww.sherimcguinn.com
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Me Too & Writing Romance: Heroes

While I plan the release of Peg’s Story: In Search of Self, I’m still writing. I have several short stories that I’m turning into romance novels. I want to make sure nothing I write undermines women. Therefore, I’m looking at myths and making myself some rules. The fifth rule is about the hero of the story.

Myth #5 – Women Want the Rough and Tough Guy

Rough around the edges, tough enough no one will mess with his woman? Hopefully not rough with his woman, though? Secretly sweet inside and kind to kittens? Terrified of babies because they’re so helpless?

Is that image why the rough and tough guys so often have more confidence than the nice, polite, considerate guys?

Me Too Connection

As I write, this scene is still playing in my mind: A high school study hall. A dozen kids at most, mostly boys, a few girls. The girls and half the boys trying to focus on their schoolwork. The other boys carrying on rowdy conversation as they enter the room, being corrected once, twice. One girl annoyed with them. Maybe because of things the teacher can’t hear. Then a clear comment about the girl’s sexual activities broadcast to the entire room clearly. The girl landing a few punches as she cries out at the injustice of his talking about her after they’d broken up, then running out of the room in tears.

Shock when the teacher sends the boy to the office with a referral for sexual harassment. Just words? There doesn’t have to be touching? Half the boys, the other girls, still quiet. None telling the boy or his friends that they are jerks, none asking to go after the girl to make sure she’s okay. Staying out of it.

There doesn’t even have to be truth in the words. A lie does just as much damage. Rumors never die. Even with everything in the news, times have not changed for the better, not for that teenage girl this cold day in 2018.

Rule #5 – Heroes Wear White Hats

Not literally, unless I do a western romance. But my heroes will be good guys who stand up for what’s right, follow a code of honor, and treat women as equals worthy of respect.

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Me Too & Writing Romance: Happy Single

While I plan the release of Peg’s Story: In Search of Self, I’m still writing. I have several short stories that I’m turning into romance novels. I want to make sure nothing I write undermines women. Therefore, I’m looking at myths and making myself some rules. The fourth one is that single women can’t have meaningful lives and be happy.

Myth #4 – Women are incomplete without a partner.

Funny thing…married women will invite single men or single fathers for dinner, but they don’t invite single women unless there’s a suitable single match coming.

When my kids were little, I thought it might be just us – they were pretty rambunctious. Then we got invited for a barbeque by the mother of my youngest son’s friend – not a big party, just the two families, not a single man in sight. And she told me why she’d offered the invitation: She and her husband had grown up in that small town, had had the same group of friends for decades, and when her husband recovered from a life-threatening heart attack, one of those women told her “I’m so glad he got better. I’d have missed having you as a friend.” If her husband had died, they would not have continued including her in their gatherings! Unfortunately, this was not a unique situation.

We’re encouraging young girls to take STEM classes, we keep fighting for equal wages for equal pay, we’ve gotten more men involved in caring for their children, but socially married women still exclude single women. Based on conversations with married friends, I don’t think this is a planned action. It makes some sense that couples would gravitate towards couples for socializing.

But why are single men included more often than single women?

I suspect it’s because a single man is traditionally more likely to be career-centered, while a single woman must be looking for a partner, which makes her a potential threat. And a married woman is traditionally less likely to risk that relationship than a man (because she needs it), and she’s more likely to be the one doing the inviting. Note I used the word “traditionally”. We often continue behaviors that no longer apply to current circumstances, because they’ve been ingrained over generations.

Of course the expectation in a romance novel is that there’s a happily-ever-after or at least a happy beginning for a couple. However, it’s okay for men to be happy single. There’s no reason single women can’t be happy and have fulfilling lives. They’re actually in a better position to have a good partnership than if they go into one needy.

Me Too Connection

The idea that a woman needs to be attached harkens back to the bad old days when women were the property of their fathers, until they became the property of their husbands. That links to the attitude that men can do whatever they want with women and that once a woman’s been used, she’s inferior.

Rule #4 – My heroines will have meaningful lives.

My heroines will include suddenly and perpetually single women who are developing or already have meaningful activities in their lives beyond the traditional nurturing roles. They will talk with other women about things other than sex, relationships, fashion, and appearances. They will have non-romantic relationships with both men and women.

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Me Too & Writing Romance: Age

While I plan the release of Peg’s Story: In Search of Self, I’m still writing. I have several short stories that I’m turning into romance novels. I want to make sure nothing I write undermines women. Therefore, I’m looking at myths and making myself some rules. The third one is about age.

Myth #3 Women are less interested in sex as they age and men can’t get it up.

Have you noticed how the women in the Viagra ads always look twenty or more years younger than the men who need the pill? Even if they aren’t that much younger, the women have dyed their hair and taken care to look young, while men with a little gray at the temple are still considered sexy.

This age myth also feeds into the concept that the only reason that “nice ladies” have sex is for procreation (to make babies). It also supports the idea of women being “used up” if they’ve had too much sex. Really, get over this nonsense! The parts aren’t that fragile and menopause can be sexually liberating.

On the other side, pharmaceutical TV ads directed at consumers (in the U.S. – most countries don’t allow them) make it sound like most men over a certain age need help to perform. Of course, thanks to side effects of other medications that are pushed at older men, it’s often true. However, this focus on the man’s erection as the key to all sexual satisfaction is another misconception.

Bottom line: Sex is not only fun when it’s mutually satisfying, it’s healthy. Orgasm does good things to the body and skin to skin contact and all that touching is good for emotional and psychological health. We don’t age out of the desire for sex.

Me Too – Is ageism linked to the Me Too movement?

Well, one reason for older women to be less interested in sex, or more selective, is the accumulation of negative experiences with sexual aggressors and predators. So really, this is not entirely a myth. However, it should be.  

Rule #3 – My heroines will include mature women

My heroines will include mature women who are willing to risk a relationship and enjoy sex, despite previous negative experiences.Sheri2012RGB2inch

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Me Too & Writing Romance: The Boss

While I plan the release of Peg’s Story: In Search of Self, I’m still writing. I have several short stories that I’m turning into romance novels. I want to make sure nothing I write undermines women. Therefore, I’m looking at myths and making myself some rules. Heroines in romance novels interact with more than one person, so these rules aren’t just about the central romance.

Myth #2 – When it’s the boss, you have to put up with it or be rescued.

“It” means anything from rude sexual comments made in our presence all the way to rape on the desk. While a good hero will be supportive, I don’t want my heroines to be downtrodden until they are saved! It’s trickier when the job market is tight and the income is essential, but still, no one should be allowed to get their jollies by using or abusing another person, whether or not it’s sexual. Even if making a formal complaint seems too risky, there may be ways to deal with it directly.

Me too.

I was a young clerk working in a room with my manager and the assistant, both men. Neither of them ever made me uncomfortable. However, a guy on my manager’s level from a different department frequently came in and always tried to embarrass me with nasty stories and jokes. My manager felt anything he said would only make it worse, so with forethought, the next time that guy came into our department, I told a story nastier than any of his. He kept his conversation clean after that.

In another job, my boss suddenly reached out and grabbed my boob. I was bundled up, definitely not the least bit provocative. In shock, I yelled at him and told him if he ever did anything like that again, I’d tell his wife. He was proper with me thereafter.

Why did these tactics work? Sexual aggression is not about sex, it’s about power. In the first case, his power was in making me uncomfortable and I took that away when I turned the tables. In the second case, I went on the offensive, taking the power right away from him. Today, I’d have the option of filing a formal complaint or lawsuit, and if a situation persisted despite any other actions I took to correct it, I would.

Rule #2 – My heroines will stand up for themselves.

In any situation involving sexual or other harassment or aggression by a boss or other person in a position of power over them, my heroines will seize the power one way or another. Furthermore, my heroines and their love interests will treat each other with respect. Any power differential inherent in their positions (rich/poor, boss/employee, etc.) will not be abused. Any sexual interactions will be mutually desired.

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Me Too & Writing Romance: Alcohol

While I plan the release of Peg’s Story: In Search of Self, I’m still writing. I have several short stories that are actually thumbnail sketches of longer romances, so I’m turning some into novels. I want to make sure nothing I write undermines women. Therefore, I’m looking at common myths about sex and making myself some rules. The first one is about alcohol.

Myth #1Sex is better after a few drinks

Alcohol lowers inhibitions. If it’s a situation that will lead to remorse (like bedding a friend’s mate), alcohol is obviously being used as an excuse. Where women are concerned, the idea that sex is better after a few drinks reinforces the underlying myths that nice ladies are reluctant to debase themselves that way or that good girls don’t get horny. It supports the dichotomy between “good women” or “nice girls” and the ones who are “easy” or “sluts”.

Physiologically, alcohol makes women less ready for sex. (This Cosmo article goes into that in more detail.) Just like men, women who have too much to drink are less likely to become fully aroused and achieve orgasm.

Alcohol also impairs judgment, which can lead to morning-after regrets. Whenever someone takes this on to denial and falsely cries rape, they impair the credibility of the person who said “no” or “stop” or struggled to get away or were too drunk to know what was happening. In fact, the common practice of having a few drinks to prepare for sex makes any sexual assault involving alcohol or drugs more difficult to prove.

 

Me too

When I was a teenager, two guys got me alone at a party and with clear intentions to take advantage of my impaired condition to have sex with me. Had they succeeded, that would have been rape. However, I was sober enough to deal with it by pretending to “come on” to the smaller one, which got rid of the other guy. By the time I could have walked away, I was feeling the effects of the alcohol I had willingly consumed earlier and was enjoying necking with him, so if we’d had sex at that point, I’d call it my stupidity, not rape – because I got myself drunk and I could have walked away once I had him alone. Fortunately, he’d had too much to drink anyway.

However, I was drugged and “taken advantage of” in college. I was at my desk working on my term paper, hoping the jerk who’d dropped in uninvited would take the hint and leave, then it was dark, we were naked, and he was on top of me and in me. My stomach burned for two days from whatever he put into my Coke. When I saw him on campus after break, I jumped into a relationship with a townie, spent most of the semester off campus or hiding in my room, then dropped out to get married. It took a couple decades to label that correctly as rape.

Rule #1My heroines will never drink to have sex.

They’ll have sex because they want to and being sober won’t stop them from being hot or wild. Whoever they’re with will turn them on, loosen them up, and give them satisfaction—no alcohol or drugs required.

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Me Too + My Fiction

People always ask if the stories I write are about me. No, their stories are not mine.

But, yeah, #Me Too.

My fictional characters have more dramatic experiences than me, but Me Too. I was drugged and “taken advantage of” in my dorm room, as we mistakenly called it back then. I’ve worked in what they now call a hostile work environment more than once. Actually, if you include annoying garbage like the boy behind me in Spanish continually trying to undo my bra, there are too many incidents to list.

As a writer, I use all of it to make my fiction come alive.

In Running Away, Peg marries the wrong guy. He molests her daughter Maggie, who runs away because she’s sure no one will believe her. She’s right. Her mother’s first reaction is denial. Why? Because the predator skillfully manipulated each of them to damage their formerly strong bond. Fortunately for Maggie, her mom’s denial doesn’t last long.

When Peg’s telling a co-worker how she wants to drop everything and go look for Maggie herself, she tells him she ran away at the same age and “My parents thought I was dead for ten years.” The novel is as much about the mother as the daughter. Peg’s been running away from her past all her life.

I didn’t convey that clearly to agents or editors, so I ended up self-publishing. When I sold the screenplay, I never got to talk with the director and with the addition of a few short scenes, he changed the mom’s backstory and made the villain obviously evil. While most of the script is still mine and Running Away is a good Lifetime movie, someday I hope to see it redone with my characters and the theme as intended.

Meanwhile, readers asked for Peg’s story and I’ve finally finished it. While it starts while she’s an innocent teen, it’s her “Me Too” story and the long way back to liking herself enough to be comfortable with all of her past. It will be released later this year.

Keep an eye out for it: Peg’s Story: In Search of Self.

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